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Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear at 20

Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is first and foremost a work-for-hire directing job; this doesn’t make it a lesser film, simply a movie he didn’t attach himself to from the beginning. Released 20 years ago this month, Cape Fear was the bookend to that other thriller released earlier in the year, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Yes, 1991 saw America’s top two filmmakers try their hands at psychological thrillers – adult horror stories, really – and the results were movies that wiped away the last remaining residue of ‘80s exploitation – mechanized shocks designed to elicit robotic responses. With Lambs, Demme, who had up to that point made a name for himself as the most humane of American directors, used his training from working for Roger Corman to execute an unrelenting serial-killer thriller. What made the movie special was Demme’s refusal to sacrifice humanity for easy scares. He turned the platonic doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling into one of movie history’s unlikeliest love stories. Even when dealing with monsters like Hannibal the Cannibal or Buffalo Bill, Demme was incapable of seeing then as just monsters. He had to locate their humanity. With Cape Fear, Scorsese left behind his comfort zone of big-city streets to tell an intimate story of a seemingly normal family imploding. His ongoing exploration of sin and guilt – whether it is ever too late for a man who has done wrong to be saved – courses through every frame of Cape Fear. Both films were big hits, but while Lambs became a zeitgeist movie complete with a character cementing a permanent place in our collective imagination, Cape Fear might be, in hindsight, the more disturbing of the two.
  • By Aaron Aradillas
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  • November 22, 2011 10:19 AM
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  • 2 Comments

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